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How Britain’s political parties got their colors

With the UK’s general election less than two weeks away, British voters have seen their TV screens, mailboxes and newsfeeds fill with color.

Just like commercial brands, political parties know that using a single, bold shade can make them easier to recognize — whether that’s out on the campaign trail or checking the latest polls.

If the last election is anything to go by, the blue of the ruling Conservatives will go head-to-head with the red of Labour. Yellow and orange (the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats, respectively) will likely make up the race for third.

Elsewhere, the British political system offers a veritable kaleidoscope of differing — and sometimes duplicate — colors. The newly formed Brexit Party uses turquoise, Change UK has opted for black and white, while Northern Ireland’s Sinn Féin and Wales’ Plaid Cymru are represented by nearly identical shades of green.

Although the older, established parties trace these associations back to their foundation, the importance of color in campaigning blossomed with the advent of new technology and advertising between the 1950s and 1970s, explained Dominic Wring, a professor of political communication at the UK’s Loughborough University.

“The advertising industry itself underwent a change around the introduction of color television, so, increasingly, colors and more ambitious or innovative designs became quite significant,” he said in a phone interview, adding that, during this time, “parties began to simplify their messaging.”

Beyond simple brand recognition, certain colors have long been associated with various values and ideologies. Yellow, for instance, is often linked to liberalism, while black has traditionally represented anarchism or fascism — especially in Britain, where followers of the British Union of Fascists in the 1920s and 1930s were known as “Blackshirts.”

For the Labour Party, the use of red was a natural choice for a group allied with trade unions, social democrats and democratic socialists. Since the French Revolution, the color has been widely associated with left-wing politics, symbolizing the blood of workers who died in the struggle against their oppressors.

Upon Labour’s inception at the beginning of the 20th century, the party used a red flag as its official logo. “The color is central and symbolic to the labor movement, and has been since that period,” said Wring, noting that the party logo has since changed to a red rose.

The Conservative Party, meanwhile, has historically adopted all the colors of the United Kingdom’s flag — red white and blue — in order, perhaps, to promote itself as a defender of British values. Of those three colors, an ultramarine blue emerged as its predominant shade (though the party’s current tree logo is a paler shade than some of its predecessors). Traditionally the most expensive color to produce, blue has long held connotations of wealth and conservatism.

Among the smaller parties, color choices have sometimes been relatively straightforward — the Green Party uses green, unsurprisingly, due to its obvious connections with environmentalism. Others have been more pragmatic. Take the Liberal Democrats’ orange, for instance, which emerged from the combination of the two parties it was created from: the Liberal Party (yellow) and the Social Democratic Party (then associated with the red of Labour, which it broke away from in the early 1980s).

Yet for the Liberal Democrats — the UK’s third largest party until the 2015 election — the color orange had another benefit: it was otherwise unclaimed. With the Scottish National Party growing in prominence in the 1970s, switching from a clashing yellow made it easier for the Lib Dems to differentiate themselves.

Indeed, for recent newcomers — like the short-lived Referendum Party in the 1990s (pink), or the UK Independence Party (purple) — distinct colors may simply help them stand out in a crowded political marketplace.

And while some colors have historical links, none are indelibly tied to ideologies. Elsewhere in Europe, orange is associated with both the Christian Democrats and, in the east, post-Soviet uprisings (see Ukraine’s so-called “Orange Revolution”). In other countries, green may represent Islamic parties rather than environmental ones. And while brown has longstanding links to Nazi groups, it also features prominently in the logo of the Marijuana Party of Canada.

Even the simple idea that blue and red represent right and left-wing parties, respectively, is inconsistent. In the US, Democrats are blue while the more conservative Republicans are red (though before the 1988 presidential election, TV networks often did the opposite, and the current notion of “red states” and “blue states” only came into common parlance until the 2000 presidential run-off).

Of course the irony, in both the US and Britain, is that despite the color-coded campaigning, when people get to the polling booths on voting day, the various shades won’t be displayed for their final, crucial decision — that’s because the ballot papers are printed in black and white.

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